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Covert op charge: US embassy scraps land plan in Islamabad

By Awais Saleem, IANS,

Islamabad : The US has scrapped plans to procure additional land from the Pakistan government in the high-security diplomatic enclave to expand its embassy in Islamabad amid accusation of the extra space being used by a security firm whose personnel allegedly carry out covert operations inside the country.

American authorities had placed the requirement for 18.5 acre additional land before the Pakistan government last year. This raised several eyebrows and the critics accused the US government of expanding the embassy premises to create space for Blackwater security contractors, a private firm.

Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, was founded in 1997. The security firm was mired in controversy after it was accused of excessive use of force, especially in Iraq. Headquartered in Moyock, North Carolina in the US, it is home to the largest private training centre in the US.

The Nation newspaper last year reported that at a covert forward operating base run by the US in Karachi, members of an elite division of Blackwater were at the centre of a secret programme in which they plan targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, “snatch and grabs” of high-value targets and other sensitive action inside and outside Pakistan.

Several right wing religio-political parties have been vociferously alleging that the US government is backing deterioration of law and order in Pakistan through Blackwater.

The accusations have been rejected by the US ambassador in Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson.

The US mission had contended that the additional land was needed to create more accommodation for the staff due to more work in the country following the passing of Kerry-Lugar bill and other development initiatives.

Several foreign missions have already shifted to the diplomatic enclave in view of the terrorist activities in the country while others, who are still operating in the residential areas, are being pursued by the government to shift to the tightly guarded diplomatic enclave.

The demand for additional land for administrative reasons is not a new phenomenon and the embassy of Saudi Arabia has already been facilitated by the government in this regard.

The Capital Development Authority (CDA) of Islamabad had asked for a price of Rs. 15,000 per square yard for the additional land adjacent to the existing US embassy.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani approved a proposal by CDA to revise the rates of land in diplomatic enclave. The authorities concerned also revised the rates for the US authorities to the tune of $1,000 or Rs. 85,000 per square yards.

The press attaché of US embassy, Richard Snelsire, said that the mission was in the process of negotiating for reduction in the rates.

However, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi confirmed that the negotiations had fallen through. “We had offered them to take only 8.5 acres instead of 18.5 acres demanded earlier, if rates were a problem,” he said.

He added that the mission decided to let go the expansion plans because of high price.

“They have now decided to expand and create more room within the existing premises,” he said and added that “the ever escalating prices of land and the expenses incurred on the security and upkeep of the diplomatic enclave made it difficult to lower the prices”.

(Awais Saleem can be contacted at [email protected])